Old KKK Town Embraces Its Immigrants, Legal or Not

When the white vans of Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) roll through sleepy Hightstown, N.J., word spreads quickly.

Mayor Bob Patten is usually the first to be awakened with an early morning call as desperate wives who watch their husbands whisked away in handcuffs need his help.

"Latinos are always on alert," said Patten, who does most of his business on foot in this one-square-mile town. "Whispers get out through e-mail, cell phones — who knows if they fly their flags in a different direction, but they go underground because they are afraid."

The well-funded Department of Homeland Security has ratcheted up its deportation raids in recent months, especially in so-called sanctuary cities. When New Haven, Conn., issued ID cards to its undocumented residents in June, ICE agents swept in and deported 29 immigrants.

In the island resort community of Nantucket, Mass., after 31 immigrants cooperated in a murder investigation, local police called federal authorities and had them deported.

Just this month the House of Representatives voted to withhold federal emergency services funding from cities that protect illegal immigrants.

Federal raids shake up a small community, and mayors like Patten have to pick up the pieces. Immigrants — legal and illegal — shun all authorities, even those there to help them. Fires and robberies go unreported. Anxious schoolchildren are kept at home. And employers lose good workers.

At least 1,300 Latinos, most of them Ecuadorian, live in this all-American town of white steeple churches and tri-color Victorians. Mostly legal, they make up about 30 percent of the population, working in neighboring fast food restaurants and warehouses.

According to the Seton Hall Study on Work, New Jersey — with the highest per capita income in the United States and the need for a healthy work force — is home to about 500,000 undocumented immigrants.

An estimated 100 live in Hightstown, according to a United Way Study of Mercer County.

Like other small, once homogenous towns, Hightstown is at the crossroads of the national immigration debate. With immigration reform now dead in Congress, communities like Danbury, Conn., and Hazelton, Pa., are cracking down and enforcing what they see as failed federal policy.

In Palm City, Fla., police patrol cars chase down illegal immigrants. Deputies arrest them on charges such as trespassing, loitering, hiding out in someone's yard, reckless driving, or for speeding off in a car, according to The Associated Press.

"It's not wrong for them to run, but it's not wrong for us to chase them either," said Sheriff Frank McKeithen, who faces criticism from civil liberties groups after setting up a task force to target construction sites.

But in Hightstown — once the regional headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan and home to race riots in the 1970s — officials are fighting old attitudes with newfound compassion.

"How can you not want to help these people?" said Patten. "They have a lot of strikes against them already — their skin, their language, their customs are different and their education is less than most who live here."

At 62, Patten has retained his boyish looks, sporting a retro crew cut. A former gym teacher, he and his wife Kathy — also a teacher — are a tag team, working for immigration reform and smoothing misperceptions between Latinos and longtime residents.

Once reliably Republican and predominantly white, the 300-year-old borough used to offer old-fashioned sweets and tuxedo rentals on its Main Street. Today, a trendy coffee bar sits among secondhand clothing stores, Western Union outlets and markets infused with aromas of cilantro.

When Patten was elected mayor in 2002, he accepted a $4,800 annual stipend. "It's $3,700 after taxes," quipped Patten, a lifelong resident.

Since then, he has officiated 220 Latino weddings and often joins their celebrations. He's heard all their stories — paying up to $15,000 for "coyotes" to cross the Mexican border, jumping overboard in boats to reach the United States, being deported and returning back to the United States in a matter of days. He has also gained their trust.

He is the lone Republican in a sea of Democrats on the Borough Council. But even his early critics have been persuaded.

At first, the outspoken mayor ran meetings "like a dictator, dominating discussions," said Democratic co-councilman Eugene Sarafin. But today, Patten has "matured" and grown into the job — especially since his stance on immigration, he said.

"He's a Republican mayor, but he acts like a liberal," said Sarafin. "Bush sees the problem of immigration in terms of business needs. Bob is more of a humanitarian. He's gone a long way to be fair to people, and I praise him now."

In the aftermath of a series of deportation raids in 2005, the Borough Council unanimously passed an immigration bill of rights. Undocumented residents are allowed to interact with police and access city services without fear of reprisal.

The Pattens created a Latino Advisory Committee to ease tensions when residents complain about overcrowded housing or rowdy soccer games. The group also enlists Spanish speakers as translators in court.

The policy is working, according to Police Chief Mickey Eufemia, who co-authored the resolution to protect immigrants. Crime is down and the economy has been revitalized.

Patten was re-elected in 2006 by a margin of only 28 of the 1,400 votes cast. His wife Kathy attributes his win to the more than 100 legal Latinos who voted for the first time.

When word got out about this immigrant-friendly town, Patten held his own in a television interview with Fox News' combative Bill O'Reilly.

"We have a town where all people are treated with respect and dignity," the mayor told him. "All people feel safe to report crime. If that makes us a sanctuary city, then we are. But we do not have a town where people are immune from the law."

The couple received hundreds of letters — mostly supportive — from as far away as Finland and France. "I don't live in New Jersey," wrote one Portuguese man. "But it feels nice to hear of someone, somewhere, who is supporting us."

At a recent roundtable at Princeton University, Patten went head-to-head with another New Jersey mayor who takes a hard line against illegal immigrants. "These are members of our community," Patten said, "and they need to feel safe."

"We are not a sanctuary town," said Donald Cresitello of Morristown, another historic town of about 18,000. "We need enforcement. Landscapers in our town are harboring, transporting and violating every law in the book. It's an underground cash economy, and immigrants are being treated like slaves."

Some letters to the editor have been critical as well. "If you come to a place illegally, it's odd to turn to the law for assistance and expect no repercussion," wrote Rita Millner to The New York Times. "What are we doing?"

But for the most part, those who oppose Patten "talk quietly over backyard fences, but are reluctant to come out," said Tory Watkins, the mayor's political rival.

Even Watkins — as chairman of the local Democratic Party — thinks Patten is doing a good job.

"He has kept a consistent position," said Watkins. "Much of the credit goes to the council, but he took the lead and people saw him setting an example."

Patten doesn't seem to worry much about those Homeland Security vans returning to town. Neither does Watkins.

"I'd be surprised if they'd go after us," said Watkins. "They've got bigger fish to fry."